I wonder how long it took the BBFC to settle on a PG rating for Coraline. Directed by Henry Selick, who made The Nightmare Before Christmas, and adapted from Neil Gaiman's novel, it looks like a children's film, with its stop-motion animation, its smiley, cuddly puppets, and its complete lack of violence, death, sex or swearing. But anyone expecting Wallace & Gromit should beware. Coraline is shot through with so much upsetting weirdness that it's about as suitable for children as Pan's Labyrinth.
Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning) is a friendless, blue-haired 11-year-old who has just moved into a flat in a Victorian house. Her parents are too busy to talk, and her loopy neighbours are a Russian acrobat (Ian McShane) and a pair of raddled old music-hall divas (French and Saunders) who keep getting her name wrong, so Coraline is left alone to wander the grey, bare house and its grey, barren surroundings.
This is quite creepy enough to be going on with, but matters get more macabre when our heroine, like Alice and the Pevensie siblings, finds a doorway to another world. At first, it seems to be a brighter, cheerier mirror image of reality, but then, in state-of-the-art 3D, come the carnivorous plants, the boy who's had his mouth removed, the witch with the body of a spider, and things more nightmarish than anything in The Nightmare Before Christmas. Essentially, Coraline is the story of a girl who travels from somewhere horrible to somewhere even more horrible.
It's easy to admire the film's psychedelic surrealism and its marvellous design, but it's not a great deal of fun. And it doesn't just have the ambience of a bad dream, it has the woozy logic of a dream as well, in that it plonks in arbitrary plot devices to help the action along, instead of explaining where the villains have come from, or how they're defeated. Unlike the best Aardman and Pixar films, Coraline's screenplay isn't as painstakingly constructed as its animation.
Stephen Frears' new film, Chéri, is adapted from a story by Colette and scripted by Christopher Hampton. It's set in belle époque Paris, where Michelle Pfeiffer is withdrawing from a career as a celebrated courtesan.
She embarks on an affair with Rupert Friend, the louche teenage son of a former colleague, Kathy Bates, but none of them takes the dalliance seriously until Pfeiffer falls in love with Friend, possibly because he's the only person in France with sharper cheekbones than hers. Alas, the 30-year age gap isn't their only obstacle. Bates plans for her son to marry a woman even younger than he is.
The film works best when it's being a comedy of bad manners. Hampton has honed some glittering, dartlike lines of dialogue, and they're tossed around with poised aplomb by the immaculately dressed cast. But as jaunty as Chéri is, it's too bitty and insubstantial to be the tragic romance it tries to become in its second half. It also has far too much in common with two of Pfeiffer's previous films, The Age of Innocence and Dangerous Liaisons (another Hampton-Frears collaboration), and neither comparison does it any favours.
If, once you've seen Chéri, you haven't had your fill of dishy young British actors swanking around in waistcoats, you could try Little Ashes, a romantic soap opera about the student friendship between Dali, Buñuel and Lorca when they were Brideshead types in 1920s Madrid. It's an interesting scenario, but its workaday execution couldn't be further from the avant-garde aspirations of its protagonists.
Also Showing: 10/05/2009
Sounds Like Teen Spirit (93 mins, (12A)
Jamie J Johnson's amusing "popumentary" introduces us to several participants in the Junior Eurovision, above, a contest I'd never heard of, but which is apparently a major event in the 17 countries involved. The 10-15-year-old competitors are sweetly ingenuous, apart from one precocious Ukrainian pop robot. But as the film jumps between them, Johnson never hits on a story that's worth telling, and his arch interjections about the contest marking the end of war in Europe hit all the wrong notes. Where's Terry Wogan when you need him?
Momma's Man (94 mins, 15)
This piquant American indie comedy drama zeroes in on the adult male urge to regress to the comforting cocoon of childhood. A thirtysomething man visits his bohemian parents while he's on business in New York, and then, for unspecified reasons, he keeps prolonging his stay instead of going home to his wife and baby daughter in California. It's a quiet film, with its own measured pace, but it has more painfully astute observations than most comedies with 10 times the budget.
Blue Eyelids (98 mins, 15)
When a shy Mexican shopgirl wins a spa break for two, she can't find anyone to accompany her, so she invites an old schoolmate she bumps into, even though she can't actually remember him from school. The awkward courtship of these two tongue-tied singletons makes for a winning tragicomic romance, with a dab of magic realism, but it's not recommended as a date movie.
Delta (92 mins, 18)
A brother and sister build a wooden house on stilts in the middle of a lake, and, despite the disapproving glares of the brandy-sodden, weatherbeaten locals, they realise that their feelings for each other go beyond regular sibling affection. Slow, laconic Hungarian art-house fare, featuring rape, pig slaughter, and a symbolic tortoise.
O'Horten (91 mins, (12A))
Dour, episodic Norwegian comedy about a train driver who retires after several decades' service. With no friends to occupy him, he floats around Oslo, drifting into vaguely quirky encounters.